The cow­shed crafts­man

‘As long as I can make the model, then I can make the full-size ver­sion.’ Meet the man who is build­ing his own Porsche 908 – and more

Octane - - CONTENTS - Words Mark Hales // Photogr aPhy Antony Fraser

Meet the man who’s build­ing his own Porsche 908

HALF A COW­SHED in Brid­port is not the ob­vi­ous place to find a Porsche 908, much less a mil­lime­tre-per­fect full-sized wooden model of a Mercedes-Benz stream­liner. But Ross Gam­mie is not ex­actly the typ­i­cal replica builder. Peo­ple build repli­cas for all sorts of dif­fer­ent rea­sons, usu­ally fi­nan­cial, but Gam­mie clearly does things be­cause he wants to, and then works out the rea­sons why when he’s fin­ished. And it’s not that he’s unique; there are plenty of craf­st­men hid­ing in sheds who turn out breath­tak­ing work in hum­ble cir­cum­stances. So maybe it’s the cu­ri­ous va­ri­ety of sub­jects Gam­mie has cho­sen to build over the years that makes him stand out. That, and the seem­ingly in­ex­haustible fund of de­scrip­tive one-lin­ers that comes with them.

A pat­tern-maker by trade, Gam­mie spent much of his early life cast­ing man­hole cov­ers in his na­tive Aus­tralia, be­fore em­i­grat­ing to Eng­land in the early 1990s, hav­ing be­come (in his words) bored with sun­shine and top­less beaches. ‘I had a prob­lem get­ting out the air­port,’ he adds. ‘They hadn’t seen too many Aussies mi­grat­ing to Eng­land.’

Be­fore he left, Gam­mie had also built him­self an ‘English cot­tage’, or a per­fect replica of some­thing you’d find in the Cotswolds. ‘Peo­ple asked me, why did I do it. Well, I used to do houses and Aus peo­ple go weak at the knees for a Lit­tle English Cot­tage. I had to train the Aus builders be­cause they don’t think like builders used to but I thought there might be a mar­ket so I built two. Then I strug­gled to sell ’em. Went to a de­vel­oper in the end. Now they’re on the TV.’

And his in­ter­est in cars? ‘Well, I had an Austin Seven when I was 15.’

I pick my way through the muddy crew yard, redo­lent with bovine aro­mas, and en­ter a large, dusty shed built from breeze­block and clad with grey fi­bre. Ev­ery­thing within is cov­ered with dust – with the pos­si­ble ex­cep­tion of a Porsche 911 RSR sit­ting just in­side the door, which is real, rather than repli­cated, and has a be­spoke cover. The build­ing has ob­vi­ously been de­signed to house and feed cat­tle rather than cre­ate au­to­mo­tive art­work, so the an­i­mal hus­bandry that still oc­cu­pies much of the square footage is le­git­i­mate dust cre­ation.

But at the end of a nar­row cor­ri­dor, yet an­other dusty door opens to re­veal the wooden Stream­liner. In­cred­i­ble, whether it’s be­cause that’s about the last thing you’d ex­pect to see, or the sheer size of it, or the ob­vi­ous craf­st­man­ship that went into its cre­ation, or the num­ber of ribs and bulk­heads that seem to en­hance the lines rather than break them up. Per­haps all of the above, plus the sim­ple no­tion that some­body would do this for no

ob­vi­ous rea­son other than be­cause they could. There’s no doubt­ing the wow fac­tor, which makes the as­sem­bled gath­er­ing go silent for a mo­ment, but, once you get past that, the method of con­struc­tion is al­most more in­ter­est­ing than the out­come.

On the dusty bench, with its wall of dif­fer­ent-sized spoke­shaves, is a small-scale var­nished wooden ver­sion, which is the start­ing point – for this and all the other cre­ations – and it’s made from a se­ries of shaped wooden bis­cuits, which are cut over­size from a sheet then sand­wiched to­gether and lo­cated with dow­els and screws to make sure they fit ex­actly. Gam­mie then ‘plays around’ with the model un­til he is happy with it; which is to say, he carves the shape un­til it matches the pic­tures. Then he dis­man­tles the model and places each bis­cuit on a large sheet of graph pa­per so he can draw round the points with a fine pen in or­der to scale it up. An un­canny skill or sim­ply the ap­pli­ca­tion of a life­time’s train­ing?

‘Aww... I don’t know if I have an eye,’ he replies. ‘The model is my eye. With­out that, I’d be blind. You just carve it all to cre­ate what you know is right, then dis­man­tle it. Then you can’t be wrong re­ally, be­cause it gives you a load of points on pa­per. You just have to re­mem­ber that 1mm on the model turns into 5mm when you scale it up.’

Well, yes, but I can’t help notic­ing that it’s the model that has to be ex­actly right in the first place, and at a frac­tion of the fi­nal size. The five-times penalty for a minute er­ror of line sounds a great deal more of a prob­lem to me than it does to Gam­mie.

Even more sur­pris­ing is that he is able to do it all from a pho­to­graph, and that the Stream­liner was just a di­ver­sion while he was wait­ing for a cast­ing. ‘I had a cou­ple of months to wait, so I built the Stream­liner. You know, Mercedes were on to me,’ he says, ‘ask­ing all sorts of ques­tions. They reckon it was pretty much mil­lime­tre per­fect and they wanted to know where on Earth I got the draw­ings and how many bod­ies I’d made. I think they were check­ing for fraud. But I did it be­cause I wanted to see a beau­ti­ful thing, not be­cause I nec­es­sar­ily wanted to sell it. Any­way, the body on the one they have is wrong, it should have a bulge on the bon­net and it hasn’t. And it’s all made of mag­ne­sium.’

His eyes roll at the sheer ex­trav­a­gance of it all. ‘Most peo­ple knock off some­one’s car and make a mould. Not many peo­ple build from a model.’

To the unini­ti­ated, it looks log­i­cal yet fraught with gotchas. Build a model, scale it up to make a buck out of wood and foam – or ‘any­thing you can get hold of’ – then take mould­ings from it. It’s easy to as­sume that is how most low-vol­ume cars have to be made, so I guess the dif­fer­ence is that here it has to look ex­actly like an orig­i­nal, which isn’t avail­able for mea­sure­ment.

Gam­mie’s first ef­fort us­ing this tech­nique was a Porsche 550 Spy­der, the es­sen­tial model for which sits on a shelf in his work­shop. ‘Didn’t work out,’ he says. ‘Fell out with the guy who was my part­ner so we never fin­ished it. Then I saw a Shar­knose Fer­rari in the Jac­ques Swa­ters mu­seum. No headlights, no doors. The most un­ob­tain­able. I thought I’d bet­ter make one. I hoped there might be a mar­ket, but it doesn’t look like it. Wrote to ev­ery­one. Wheatcroft was the only one who replied, but it’s all gone quiet.’ He adds that it had in­volved the best part of eight months’ work.

We move across the breeze-block cor­ri­dor to an­other work­room, the walls lined with pic­tures and draw­ings, all by Gam­mie’s hand, and the shelves piled with wooden cast­ing pat­terns. There’s a Porsche rocker cover, a set of in­let trum­pets for a Fer­rari flat-12, an end cover for an Alfa Tipo 31 en­gine, gear­levers, up­rights, disc bells, wheel cen­tres for the 908. Did he make ev­ery­thing I can see?

‘Yeah. It’s all the spe­cial parts. They’re all cast. The Brit con­struc­tors used stuff off the shelf but if you use pro­pri­etary parts for Al­fas, Porsches, Fer­raris, they’re just wrong, and they don’t work like the orig­i­nals.’

He picks up a grey shape, which holds a ball-joint for the Porsche’s sus­pen­sion. ‘Like this Zimmerman balljoint. They’re £500 each and I need six. I cast them in a stick, then put a ball-joint in it. And th­ese anti-roll bar clamps, which I had to cast, then cut off. I can see why peo­ple don’t do it. All the stuff that, th­ese days, it’s pos­si­ble to hob from a solid lump us­ing a CNC mill, is pat­terned in wood, then cast and ma­chined.’ He cracks a mis­chievous grin. ‘They wouldn’t sell me one any­way, so I guess be­ing a pat­tern-maker helps.’

The shelves also con­tain more mod­els: a Bent­ley Spe­cial from which he made a full-size work­ing car (look­ing a bit like a 1930s De­la­haye); a Porsche 908 Spy­der, an Abarth Car­rera – ‘Thought about mak­ing one of th­ese be­cause you can get the en­gines. I guess I’m glad I didn’t, see­ing as how I haven’t sold any of the oth­ers…’

And there’s one he didn’t make: a Kyosho model of the No 22 Fer­rari 250GTO, the car that fin­ished third over­all at Le Mans in 1962, then se­cond the year af­ter, and is now owned by Nick Ma­son. I tell him I’ve driven it lots. ‘Re­ally? Well, I got to make a 1:5 scale model.’

The com­puter and the scan­ner he says have changed ev­ery­thing, but there is still a de­mand for sand­cast stuff be­cause it doesn’t look right when it’s done on a CNC mill. ‘And peo­ple like my bucks be­cause they get all the solid bits to go with it. The nose, the flares, all that stuff which is harder to do on com­puter.’

And, of course, there is the coupé 908-3 sit­ting on tres­tles, which Gam­mie says was a lot eas­ier to do be­cause he found a draw­ing at Good­wood, as well as a real car that he could pho­to­graph. But why a 908?

‘I saw one in Queens­land a while back. Al­ways thought I could build one be­fore I die. It’s only a few bits of tube and some glass­fi­bre, and they’re only 37 inches high.’ All of which is true, but the thing that makes it

Clock­wise from left

They all be­gin as a 1:5 scale model – the Mercedes W196 stream­liner in this case; Ross Gam­mie’s 911 RSR (this one’s real, it seems); the mas­ter in­ter­prets his own draw­ings; the

full-size stream­liner buck takes shape.

Clock­wise from top right The Porsche 908 body, seen from rear three-quar­ter; tubu­lar struc­ture vis­i­ble from within – and also un­der the tail; Gam­mie casts his own com­po­nents, in­clud­ing brake discs; draw­ings and iconic im­ages line the walls.

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